Coal Fights on and on and…

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is the last in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

In June 1941 the Chrysler Corporation wanted to do a radio program, as part of its continuing series honoring cities, on St. Louis and its air pollution campaign.

The introduction began: “St. Louis had – figuratively speaking – washed her face. For within the past year she has very skillfully wiped out the plague of smoke and soot that dimmed her skies.”

Coal officials objected. A flurry of telegrams was sent to Chrysler arguing that the smoke problem had not been resolved and that the city ban on high sulfur coal was creating dissension. Even mentioning the smoke program, said C.V. Beck of the Illinois Coal Trade Commission, would be an attack on the coal industry.

The coal industry had been waging an unrelenting attack on the St. Louis campaign and despite its failure those arguments would continue for years. Echoes of the drive could be felt decades later when concern how coal was warming the planet produced million-dollar complaints in a campaign called “The War on Coal.”

Coals War

A truck passes a political sign in a yard in Dellslow, W.Va., on Oct. 16, 2012 as workers and their employers joined forces in the public relations campaign called The War on Coal.  AP Photo

In St. Louis most of the defense was placed on two men, Raymond Tucker and James L. Ford Jr. Tucker was smoke commissioner until September 1941 when he resigned and became a consultant working to help other cities adopt ordinances and campaigns similar to the one in St. Louis.

Pittsburgh, long known for its foul air pollution, was one of the first to pass a similar ordinance. Tucker was a consultant to the city at the time.

Ford was a banker who had been drafted to become chairman of the Smoke Elimination Commission in St. Louis. After Tucker began evangelizing through the nation much of the defense in St. Louis fell to Ford.

And there were attacks, repeated attacks, by the coal industry, which wanted to return to business of the past.

One of the first came in August 1942 when a coal industry trade publication, The Solid Fuel Engineer, published an anonymous letter arguing that the city should relax its ordinance and allow dirtier coal to be burned until World War II ended. Later the magazine’s editor joined the fray arguing that the ordinance had not significantly reduced air pollution, despite the claims of the city.

Other attacks came in 1944 and in 1947 even after the war was over.

There were a variety of charges made but the harshest seemed to be that the air quality had not improved in St. Louis in the 1940s. It was also the easiest for Tucker to disprove.

In the winter of 1939-40 when St. Louis was often buried for day after day under thick bilious clouds of black smoke, the number of hours recorded by the U.S. Weather Service was 599.   That had been cut to 127 hours by 1942-43 and was only 156 hours in 1944-45.

Other cities did adopt the St. Louis ordinance but ultimately the smoke problem that had plagued cities throughout North America was resolved not by burning cleaner coal but from adopting a new fuel. By the 1950s the natural gas industry was building a network of pipelines that would crawl across America, delivering a cleaner, cheaper and more convenient fuel. No longer would coal trucks have to drop huge piles of ore, no longer would someone in a household need to bank the burner each night, no longer would the ash have to cleaned and dumped outside.

Former Mayor Bernard Dickmann, dumped from City Hall partly because he forced voters to buy more expensive coal, was rewarded in 1953 with a patronage job as St. Louis postmaster. He would serve 15 years. Ford, the banker and reluctant public servant, could retire. Tucker would go into politics and become mayor of St. Louis from 1953 to 1965.

But while coal would no longer be burned in homes and small businesses, coal did not disappear.   In 2015 the U.S. produced 895 million tons of coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That has decreased from the peak in 2008 of 1.17 billion tons, but is still twice as much as what was being produced in the early 1940s.

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Congress Coal

 A mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., representative of how coal has tried to become more economically feasible and yet less environmentally acceptable.  AP Photo

With concern continuing to rise over coal’s contribution to global climate change, coal production is expected to continue to decline. But just as in St. Louis, it is not going to go down without a fight.

“The War on Coal” public relations campaign against increased environmental regulations and oversight is also a well-financed investment by the coal industry. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that the money surges in election years with $11 million spent in 2014 and $15.3 million in 2012.

One can only wonder how much will be spent in 2016 with the general election still ahead at this writing.

For 16 months coalblacksky.com has tried to shine a light on a past that for most has been long forgotten. We take our air for granted and yet without it we would perish.

For decades in the past cities across America took it too much for granted. The result was a long history of illness and death.

In St. Louis courage and fortitude found a way out of that dilemma.

Today the attack in the air we breathe is far more insidious, far less noticeable, and in some respects far more dangerous.

It would be inexcusable to leave such a legacy for those who will follow us 75 years from now. We have to find the spirit and pluck to end all coal black skies.

 

 

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The Price Goes Upward

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

With his political life on the line, Barney Dickmann survived.

For the moment.

Dickmann successfully beat back two challengers in the St. Louis Democratic primary election for mayor on March 7. But he still needed to face his Republican opponent William Dee Becker in the general election and his prospects looked bleak.

Democrats had cast 81,956 ballots in the primary, but Republican were stronger with 95,469 ballots. It was the best showing by the Republicans since 1929.

There were a number of issues in the race but the city’s air pollution soon was a major topic.

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The price of coal helped decide the election.

Becker, a former St. Louis circuit court judge, argued that the city’s success so far in cleaning up its air was less Dickmann’s accomplishment and more a bipartisan triumph. He also credited the city’s newspapers for helping force residents and businesses to buy cleaner but more expensive coal to heat their homes and power industry.

If anything, Dickmann tried to distance himself from the situation, claimed Becker, by dumping the issue on a bipartisan committee and staying aloof in case anything went wrong.

Becker also hinted that he might be able to lower fuel prices in the future.

Those accusations prompted an odd array of unusual supporters of Dickmann in response to Becker’s charges.

James L. Ford, the local banker who had headed the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee, said it was unfair to suggest Dickmann was not involved in the final recommendations.   Dickmann was responsible more than any other single individual in the new law ordering everyone to buy cleaner coal, said Ford.

Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker argued that Dickman had done everything he could to get the lowest possible price for the coal legally sold in the city. Tucker said the biggest obstacle was that wholesale coal prices at the time were set by the federal government and that significantly limited what Dickmann could do.

If Becker had a plan to lower coal prices, added Tucker, he should disclose it before the election.

Perhaps most surprising were the city’s three newspapers. Each of them argued that the smoke issue should not be part of the campaign and that Dickmann deserved to be re-elected.

The St. Louis Star-Times declared “The anti-smoke campaign has been far too successful and has brought too many benefits to St. Louis to be kicked around in political speeches and extravagant pre-election tall talk.”

Suggestions that the fuel costs could be cut meant that candidates were “cruelly beguiling the poor, who are forever being deluded with the mirages of political promises.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called Becker’s comments “unfair campaigning.”

Both the Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat suggested that the smoke campaign was above politics and that Becker should prove it by retaining Tucker – a Democrat – as smoke commissioner.

But a coalition of groups representing low-income residents and even labor unions that would normally support a Democrat came out in support of Becker.

It was all too much.

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The price of removing a blight in the sky was too much

On April 1, election day, Becker easily defeated Dickmann. The results: Becker 183,112 with 55.4 percent to 147,428, or 44.6 percent, for Dickmann.

As Oscar Allison was to write in 1978 in a thesis about Tucker and the smoke campaign, the very success of the smoke drive “had a built-in paradox.” People were happy to have clean air but unhappy to have to pay for it. As a result, Barney Dickmann was denied a third term.

Historians have sometimes suggested that Dickmann lost because of charges that he ran a political machine out of City Hall that voters had tired of. But Dickmann always believed that anger over the cost of the smoke campaign was a major reason he lost.

That political lesson is another reason progress remains slow in cleaning the air or ending climate change, whether it is in Los Angeles, London, Beijing or New Delhi.

 

What Is The Price For Clean Air?

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

In November 1940 Barney Dickmann, who had been mayor of St. Louis for eight years, was told it was time he left City Hall for good.

That message was not delivered by opposition Republicans but some of Dickmann’s once loyal Democratic supporters. A “Stop Dickmann” movement was begun. Campaigners argued that only a Democrat who was isolated and clean of the city’s well-oiled political machine could best topple whoever the Republicans put up in March.

That wasn’t the only reason they were worried.

The city campaign that had forced businesses and residents to buy more expensive but cleaner coal to power industry and heat homes had been wildly successful. As the days began now to get warmer and winter began to lose its grasp of St. Louis everyone agreed that the air had never been so clean.

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St. Louis City Hall

The Weather Bureau would later confirm that overall visibility in St. Louis had been reduced from Sept. 1 to April 1 by 72 percent.

But there was also a great deal of anger from those individuals who Democrats especially counted on for votes – residents with reduced or low incomes.

Prices for coal in many of these neighborhoods had doubled. The Worker’s Alliance and the St. Louis Council of American Youth Congress called the increase a cruel joke.

Many blamed Dickmann. One citizen said in a letter to the editor to one of the newspapers that the poor may have been defeated, and may have to freeze or at the very least remain undernourished because of the neglect of city officials. But, he added, “they will be felt if not heard at election time and Dickmann minus the support of the poor equals no third term.”

In the primary election scheduled for March 7 Dickmann was opposed by two other Democrats. Even if he could prevail over opponents Lee Meriwether, a retired lawyer, or George Saenger, he faced a more formidable challenge from the Republicans.

In particular he would have to face the wrath of William Dee Becker, a retired judge of the St. Louis Court of Appeals. Becker opened his campaign by vowing to “clean out the boss-ridden City Hall.”

Becker and other Republicans were especially incensed about how Dickmann had been involved in an attempt the previous year to thwart the Republican governor from taking office.

But Becker also pledged to do more to help the poor buy coau

At a forum a week before the primary election virtually all of the candidates including Dickmann said they favored doing more. But while Becker said he had a plan, Dickmann said he had long studied the issue and a clear answer was still not available.

That did not sit well with many voters.

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Scenes such as this had disappeared in St. Louis –  Tucker Archives

As the polls opened on March 7 questions remained about Barney Dickmann’s future. Residents in the city’s third ward awoke to find an effigy of Dickmann hanging from a utility line in the neighborhood. A sign attached to it declared: “Mayor Dickmann Gone With the Wind.”

No one seemed that disturbed. One passerby who walked by exclaimed, “Why it’s good old Barney!”

And yet many wondered, was this a precursor to Dickmann’s fall?

 

London Fog – Menace, Inspiration

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city. This column is the third in a series examining the experiences of other cities.

By Bob Wyss

It had several names – pea soup, London particular, king fog and especially London fog.

What it consisted of was a toxic soup of smoke, particulates and chemicals sometimes mixed with meteorological fog that had clouded London for centuries. The phenomena has been described many times and one of the best new profiles is London Fog, A Biography, by Christine Corton, published in November, 2015 by Belknap Press.

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London Fog by Christine Corton.

The book is partly an account of the political, scientific and economic factors that allowed London fog to persist until the late 20th Century. In this respect, it will be familiar to those who have followed this blog and the trials of St. Louis.

As in St. Louis, London’s topography was a broad river valley that often trapped pollutants on both shores of the Thames. London fog was produced by burning coal, both from industry and also in the winter from the households of tens of thousands of residential chimneys. That was no different than St. Louis and other American cities.

With science uncertain of both the cause and the dangers, arguments in London about burning cleaner hard coal floundered – just as in America. While St. Louis and other cities began as early as 1940 to make a concerted effort to reduce air pollution, Londoners delayed.

Corton does note that fog was the thickest in the 1880s and 1890s and helped define London’s character in Victorian England. Yet even as late as 1962 London was afflected by huge toxic blankets that sat over the city for days.

The fog is Corton’s is the narrative thread of the book. Sometimes she deals with its political and social impacts. More often she examines how the fog impacted British arts, from literature to artists.  It was Herman Melville who coined the term pea soup; Charles Dickens who made London fog a villain in many of his novels; and Claude Monet whose paintings cloaked London’s Charring Cross Bridge in a swirl of colors as the fog filtered sunlight through the day.

American writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain often reacted negatively to London’s fog, Corton reports. They would liken the dark clouds at the very least to the “supine indolence of the Old World” and at its worst to a form of Hades or Hell.

Yet many other writers could not resist weaving the dark swirl of a pea soup into their plots, whether they were Henry James, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad or Arthur Conan Doyle. While the real Jack the Ripper preferred clear nights to assist in his hunt for victims, Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde employed the London fog to assist the villain Hyde in his first murder. The next day “a great chocolate-coloured pall” of smoke or fog hung over the city, a metaphor for the arrival of a great evil.

Fog obscured shapes and colors. That may have frustrated many English landscape artists but it absolutely delighted an impressionist such as Monet. “London is the more interesting that it is harder to paint,” he once wrote. “The fog assumes all sorts of colors, there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs.”

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Parliament buildings in a London fog as depicted by Claude Monet.

The book is filled with artist’s renderings of London and its fogs, from paintings by James McNeil Whistler to woodcuts taken from pulp magazine stories about the fog.

But for those who lived and breathed London’s foul air every day life was less than romantic. The cold and smoky air in a year such as 1886 resulted in 11,000 deaths from bronchitis. A single week in December, 1891 killed 700.

No period is more famous, however, than the “Great Killer Fog” of 1952 when a belt of yellow fog descended on the city and lasted for a week. Traffic stopped, so did business, commerce and social life. The death estimates vary, from 4,000 up to 12,000.

Today the era of London fog is gone, a relic nearly as forgotten as link lighters, the men and boys who were employed in the early 19th Century to illuminate dark and fog shrouded avenues. Link lighters were supposed to be a hedge against thieves, but too often they themselves turned to crime.

While it is hard to understand today how Londoners could have tolerated the fogs and their dangers, today we can find many parallels. They are not just the dangerous conditions and air that hang over developing cities such as Beijing and New Delphi as profiled previously here. It is also the fossil fuel produced crisis we call climate change which is melting polar ice caps, raising sea levels, flooding coastal areas and increasing threats ranging from famine to more great storms.

We have known of these threats for years, yet we have done very little to stop them.

 

New Delhi Air Worst in World

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city. In a different take, this column examines the current experiences of other cities.

By Bob Wyss

New Delhi has the dirtiest air of any city on earth.

That was the verdict of the World Health Organization in 2014 after it studied the air of 1,600 cities worldwide. Over the next two years stories have appeared virtually daily both in Indian and international news outlets about the dangers of New Delhi’s air pollution.

Often China and especially Beijing are the focus of attention about how dirty its air has become. Yet a study released in December, 2015 by Greenpeace India and East Asia said that at least Beijing has an alert system, which closes schools and factories and cuts traffic levels in half when the air gets to a dangerous level. If that system were in place in New Delhi, according to the Greenpeace report, the alert system would have been activated 29 out of 30 days last November.

India Air Pollution

An India man wears a face mask to protect himself from smoke during Diwali celebrations, or the festival of lights, on Nov. 11, 2015 in New Delhi, India. A day after the festival, the air pollution across New Delhi was very severe to critical in various parts of the capital region.  AP Photo

In January, 2016 the New Delhi government finally responded to the air crisis, which occurs each winter, by enacting a two-week experiment. Only private vehicles with license plates ending in odd or even were allowed on the roads in succeeding days, with Sunday exempt.

The New York Times reported that many residents were furious about the ban in a city where having a car and a driver was a status symbol and rush hours bumper-to-bumper traffic was endemic.

“If you want to call me snooty, all right, I am, because that is my lifestyle and that’s how I work,” Promila Bij told a Times reporter. She had arrived late for work after taking taxis while her three cars and drivers stood idle because their license plates all ended in odd numbers. “You cannot say ‘change your lifestyle’ at the snap of a finger.”

For years New Delhi residents had tolerated the worsening air pollution because they seemed powerless to change it.

But the rash of publicity seems to at least be affecting some governmental officials. It had been news stories published in St. Louis 75 years ago that had finally helped push the government and civic leaders to make reforms to curb the city’s vexing air pollution problems.

Much of the news has been about New Delhi’s increased health complications related to the air pollution. The Centre for Science and Environment in India reported in December, 2015 that 10,000 to 30,000 New Delhi residents die each year of illness directly related to the city’s air pollution. Another 620,000 die of illnesses that might be caused by pollutants in the air.

When President Barack Obama visited New Delhi in late 2014 one scientist estimated that the President might have lost six hours of his life span by spending three days breathing the city’s air.

In June 2015 the city agreed to begin publishing daily bulletins about the city’s air pollution levels. By late January the government was meeting and discussing what else it could do, including banning many trucks from entering New Delhi and imposing strict dust controls on construction sites.

India Air Pollution

The Indian national flag flies as a thick layer of smog envelops the city skyline on Nov. 12, 2015, in New Delhi, India. AP Photo

By then the results of the two-week experiment in restricting private automobiles had been released. The Central Pollution Control Board reported that while there had been wild fluctuations in air pollutants during the two-week experiment, no clear trend in the cause was apparent.

Even while the experiment was underway many residents had been skeptical about its chances for showing anything. Sixty-five year old Veena Dogra told the New York Times that she planned to continuing coping with the pollution and avoid the air purifiers and face mask that many neighbors donned.

“You have to be tough to live in New Delhi,” she said. “If you’re not, you should leave. And I have too much family here to think about doing that.”

Beijing Air This Winter Becomes Frightening

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city. In a different take, this column examines the current experiences of other cities.

By Bob Wyss

Today the world’s air is killing us.

While that remains true in the U.S., it is especially the case in China and India. The World Health Organization reported that about 4.3 million people die of air pollution every year. About 1.5 million of those deaths are in China, another 1.3 million in India, and the two countries together account for nearly two thirds of all global fatalities.

How serious is the epidemic? Nature recently reported that more people now die of air pollution than malaria and HIV combined.

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis and other industrialized urban areas in North America and Europe suffered fatalities primarily from burning coal each winter. Here is what has been happening just in the last few months in China.

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Commuters in Beijing wait for a bus last Nov. 30 as the air pollution worsened to the point where some began wearing face masks.  AP Photo

Beijing issued the first of two red alerts in December, the first since it adopted a system to warn residents when the air simply became too dangerous. Schools closed, half of the city’s vehicles were ordered off the roads, and factories shut.

Some experts called the first alert a watershed moment, no Chinese community had ever ordered such drastic measures since the alert system was adopted in 2014.

Even as the pollution worsened in late November visitors to Beijing were alarmed at the extent of the haze.

“My train is approaching Beijing soon,” an internet user only identified as Damo wrote on the website Aqicn.org. “Oh God, I see the legendary haze. It is suffocating.”

China Daily in its news report at the same time talked to Tang Ying, a tourist from Shenzhen. “I had heard that Beijing’s air pollution was severe,” he said. “But I never thought it was this bad. It’s meaningless to live here, no matter how much I can earn.”

But the problem is not confined to Beijing. The Chinese Ministry of Environment Protection reported in January that the vast majority of the nation’s 330 largest urban areas had serious air pollution problems, according to measurements taken the last year. The only region with relatively safe air was in the mountainous region of Tibet. The worst problems were in the North and Northeast where both the population and industrialism were high.

The New York Times reported that even as Beijing was issuing its first red alert over air pollution on Dec. 10, other cities were continuing to ignore the problem. Many of them had air that was even more hazardous than Beijing’s, yet citizens were still going to work and schools were open.

Those familiar with Chinese policies said that local officials often feel pressure to maintain the social norms, which includes striving to boost economic growth.

“Every city is fighting its own game,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental agency, told the Times. “It’s still very hard to trust what the others are talking about. We need a new level of transparency if we want to coordinate this regional pollution control.”

But clearly Beijing, a city of 20 million and the seat of the Communist government, was growing fed up just as citizens in the U.S. had 75 years ago.

On Jan. 23 the issue of the city’s continuing air pollution was the major subject as the Beijing’s Peoples Congress convened.

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As traffic snarls and the air thickens on a Beijing thoroughfare the evening of Nov. 30, 2015 a giant television screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Paris climate change talks.  AP Photo

The city cannot control some of its pollution, which blows in at times from neighboring industrial areas. Yet it is vowing to do what it can, according to a recent report in China Daily.

Some of the worst air pollution occurs each winter from coal-burning stoves in individual homes and businesses. That is identical to the issue faced by St. Louis and other cities.

In early January Beijing environment officials announced they would work to somehow get rid of what could be millions of these small stoves.

It is a Herculean task. But it has been done elsewhere in the past.

Next week: India.

St. Louis Declares Victory In Air

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

From darkness into light.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch with that headline formally declared victory over air pollution in a special multipage Sunday report.

“A great city has washed its face,” wrote Sam Shelton, the reporter who had been responsible for most of the coverage over the last 15 months. “St. Louis is no longer the grimy old man of American municipalities.” The “plague of smoke and soot” had been wiped away after a century in “a dramatic story of intelligent, courageous and co-operative effort.”

No longer did residents have to endure “burning throats, hacking coughs, smarting eyes, sooty faces and soiled clothing.”St-Louis-Flags

The story told in detail how the city was spurred to action after the sky had darkened so dramatically on Nov. 26, 1939, how a citizens group had researched the issue and recommended a ban on the soft coal that was creating most of the pollution.

Besides Shelton’s main story there were several pages featuring photos, guest columns and other stories.

“Common Sense Won the Battle,” headlined a column in the special section by James L. Ford who had headed the Smoke Elimination Committee. “Common sense told us that if no smoke was created there would be no smoke,” he wrote. “We checked the problem at the source and tried to make the solution foolproof.

Mayor Bernard Dickmann also wrote a column in the section in which he emphasized that his goal from the beginning had been not just to reduce the degree of pollution but to eliminate it.

There were also photographs, many spread over several pages graphically showing how the skyline had looked in the past and what it looked like now. And to emphasize that not everyone had yet learned the lesson, there were photos of both St. Louis and East St. Louis taken the same day and hour. The St. Louis air was clear, East St. Louis was dark and cloudy because the city had yet to enact a strict ban on the soft coal.

Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II had authorized the massive spread that proclaimed the battle was won. In some respects, it seemed very premature. Most of the city’s pollution in the past occurred during the winter from household heating, and spring was still six weeks away. Plus, city officials had warned that it might take several years to truly bring the smoke situation under control.

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Joseph Pulitzer II

Yet the winter had been so clear that everyone was bragging about the quality of the air.

Plus the newspapers, led by the Post-Dispatch with strong support from the rival dailies the Globe-Democrat and Star-Times, had strongly supported the campaign for the last 15 months. Stories ran virtually daily in one or more of the newspapers, often accompanied by hard-hitting editorials with many editorial cartoons by the Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Fitzpatrick. It was a classic newspaper campaign.

It was about this time that Pulitzer and his top aides began making decisions on what stories to nominate for various journalism awards, including the top prize named after his father. Pulitzer did not decide until rather late to nominate the smoke campaign for a Pulitzer and then he proposed it for the key award, for public service.

Two months later Columbia University, which was the trustee for the Pulitzer Prizes, announced that the Post-Dispatch had won the award for public service. Journalism historians say it is the first time that a major award was conferred for an environmental story.

Clearly the air over St. Louis had not been the only winner.

 

Once A Nuisance, Now The Air Of St. Louis Draws Fans From Across U.S.

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

The three men were amazed. On the night of Jan. 27, 1941 they had driven through East St. Louis, darkened by low-level clouds of black smoke. Then they crossed the river into St. Louis.

The air cleared.

“I am truly amazed at what we found here,” said J. H. Alexander.   “When we drove through East St. Louis last night we thought we were back in Pittsburgh.”

Alexander was director of public health in Pittsburgh. He had come to St. Louis with two Pittsburgh newspaper reporters to find out more about how this Missouri community was solving its air pollution problems.

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A Pittsburgh hillside in the 1940s, with the city’s haze hanging nearby in the background.

They were not alone.

St. Louis officials would keep a list of the inquiries and visits from other cities around the nation. By mid-February it would have the names of 83 cities from Atlanta to Zanesville and from Attleboro on the East Coast to Berkeley on the Pacific.

Perhaps no one needed the relief more than Pittsburgh. Since the first iron and steel furnaces began blasting in Pittsburgh, the city was famous for the shroud of pollution that often covered it.

As far back as 1818 a visitor to Pittsburgh had remarked that “even the complexion of the people is affected by smoke.” Laundry merchants boasted that Pittsburgh was the greatest city in the world. By the early 20th Century Pittsburgh led the nation in death by pneumonia.

Alexander, the Pittsburgh health official, met for an hour with St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann and then told reporters the city has been looking for years for guidance from other air pollution programs.

“The St. Louis program is the one that has given satisfactory results, and I believe we could do no better than to adopt a similar program,” Alexander said. “St. Louis now is unquestionably out of the ranks of the five dirtiest cities in the nation.”

Others agreed. A delegation from Salt Lake City included an engineer who had been stationed in St. Louis 12 years earlier. “There is no comparison between then and now,” said William Butler, chief smoke abatement engineer in Salt Lake.

Cities such as Des Moines, Iowa began to ask St. Louis officials to come and describe how they had been so successful. Newspapers and magazines nationally were reporting on the success in St. Louis.

Business Week magazine’s “Smog-Less St. Louis” article said that the city had won a 50-year battle to control its air pollution. “St. Louis Sees the Sky” ran the headline in the Cincinnati Post. “Birmingham Congratulates St. Louis,” proclaimed the Birmingham News.

Not everyone came away impressed.

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Pittsburgh in the 1940s with its steel and iron foundries in the background.  The mills were a prime reason the city had been known for decades for its foul air.

Robert Fredericks, the public service commissioner in Memphis, Tenn. visited and told other city officials when he returned home that St. Louis had exaggerated its success. St. Louis, he said, still had too much smoke.

Buildings, streets and sidewalks were “not only unsightly as far as needing painting or washing but there seems to be an accumulation of soot and dirt in front and around most of them,” he said.

Others that year and in later years would express similar views. Some represented the coal industry, others simply maintained contrarian views. Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, who would go on to become mayor of St. Louis, would encounter such skepticism for years. Each time it occurred he would marshal the facts to document how year after year the city’s air was cleaner.

The very fact that 83 communities throughout the U.S. and Canada were inquiring about what was going on in St. Louis was proof enough for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the task was succeeding.

“Having assumed this national leadership, it must be maintained,” the newspaper reported. “The remaining problems must be resolved. There must be no backsliding.”

St. Louis Neighbors Share The Air But Are Less Clear On The Price Of It

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

Neighbors can be friendly or cranky. We have very little choice usually in who lives next to us.

St. Louis was discovering a distinct pattern in its neighbors. On one side they were friendly to the city’s efforts to curb its air pollution. On the other side some neighbors were still downright hostile.

Not surprisingly, the latter all lived in Illinois across the river. St. Louis was no longer buying most of its coal from Illinois because the fuel had been the source of the city’s air problems. But the result in Illinois had been fewer jobs for coal miners and a reduced economy.

On Jan. 11 the mayor of Belleville met with representatives of several other Southern Illinois communities and agreed to sponsor a referendum in St. Louis. The vote would be aimed at reversing a city ordinance adopted the previous April, which restricted residents from buying high sulfur coal. Most of the Illinois coalfields only produced that type of coal.

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Belleville, Ill. which is located in St. Clair County directly east and from St. Louis.

The Illinois city officials did not explain how exactly they would induce St. Louis to run a referendum. The ordinance had received virtually unanimous support from the St. Louis Board of Alderman, was strongly supported by Mayor Bernard Dickmann, the city’s three daily newspapers and a coalition of the city’s business interests.

In addition, not everyone in St. Louis was happy about paying more to stay warm this winter, even if the tradeoff had been a clearer sky.

Said Belleville Mayor George Remsnider: “A referendum would determine whether the smoke ordinance is the will of the people of St. Louis and would enable East Side (Illinoise) coal miners and operators to know where they stand on the good-neighbor policy.”

Remsnider said the anti-smoke campaign was aided the previous winter by very cold weather which caused more coal combustion and thus more pollution. While St. Louis officials were claiming the city efforts had dramatically reduced smoke this winter so far, Remsnider believed it was because the weather had been so much milder and thus less coal had been burned.

The weather so far, said Remsnider, had “failed” Illinois coal interests.

And in a pointed reminder, Remsnider told a reporter he was looking forward to March 14 when Dickmann would be up for re-election in a primary election. Remsnider predicted that there were enough St. Louis voters upset about the smoke ordinance that Dickmann would be defeated.

Meanwhile, neighbors on the Missouri side of the river were reacting exactly the opposite. After the city had begun discussions in December (See Coalblacksky Dec. 11, 2015) the St. Louis Star Times on Jan. 10 surveyed Missouri suburban leaders and found they were all willing to revise local codes to bring them into compliance with the St. Louis anti-smoke ordinance.

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Most of the neighboring communities in St. Louis County generally were in support of the city anti-smoke campaign.

Five days later Dickmann met with two suburban mayors and they agreed to create a committee that would work on a model ordinance that could be adopted by each municipality. Interestingly, one of the mayors was from East St. Louis, Ill.

That mayor, John T. Connors, said that he would not only work with St. Louis and other suburban communities but he would try and convince other Illinois towns to join the effort.

Said Connors: “I am sure that by asking for a meeting of the mayors of the east side cities we could get together on a real program for better relationship between both sides of the river.”

Which way were the political winds blowing in Illinois?

Remsnider began to find out when he called a meeting for Jan. 18 and mayors of 13 Illinois communities did not attend. Still, more than 50 people did show up, including some municipal, labor and coal officials as well as even a few that said they were from St. Louis.

In his speech to the group Remsnider declared that all of the city’s newspapers had been publishing biased stories about the air pollution controversy.

Newspaper editors did not respond. Some seemed more encouraged that so many municipalities were joining St. Louis.

“Here is additional proof that our ordinance is working,” declared an editorial in the St. Louis Star Times. “It’s results are so obvious that even suburban cities, where the smoke problem never has been so serious as in St. Louis can recognize its advantages.”

The Weather Bureau Confirms What Has Now Become Obvious in St. Louis

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

It was now official.

The amount of smoke and air pollution hovering on St. Louis had been cut in more than half in the winter of 1940-41.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch made that declaration in a story Jan. 14 after sending a reporter to the U.S. Weather Bureau to examine records for the last two years.

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The air was clear most days, even downtown near the old historic courthouse.

The findings – 146 hours of thick and moderate smoke palls had occurred between Sept. 30, 1940 and Jan. 14 compared to 336 hours during the same period the year earlier.

The Weather Bureau broke up the degree of the problem labeling the pollution either thick or moderate. Thick smoke clouds had been reduced by 22 percent, moderate levels of pollution were down 48 percent.

“The findings constitute the first detailed statistical evidence of the striking success already achieved in the administration of the city’s plan,” declared the newspaper in a front-page story.

In an editorial titled “It’s Official” the editors also expressed their satisfaction in the statistics. “Most of us came to the same conclusion some time ago by reading our shirts, comparing the laundry and cleaning bills and tapering our visits to the nose-and-throat doctors,” it said. “But the Weather Man now makes it official. Those who don’t believe in the evidence of the eyes can pore over his figures.”

Actually, readers need only glance at Daniel Fitzpatrick’s editorial cartoons to gauge what was happening with the air in St. Louis this winter.   “How did you manage to quit smoking?” asked one cartoon. Another was titled “Now that the smoke is clearing.”

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Shaw’s Garden, now called the Missouri Botanical Garden, was finding striking new successes as the air quality improved.

Out at Shaw’s Garden where the plants had always suffered from the air pollution the signs were especially promising. The red and yellow dogwoods and the green sassafras twigs were particularly vibrant in color this year. In the greenhouses, for the first time ever, the orchid experts were able to produce four perfect snow-white blossoms on one plant of the hybrid Catteya.

Not every day was perfectly clear.

Smoke had crept over the city on Jan. 13 beneath low hanging clouds. But it was the first episode of the new year and only the seventh time thick smoke had arrived in this winter.

James L. Ford, the businessman who had chaired the citizen’s committee that resulted in St. Louis’ tough new anti-pollution ordinance, said the smoke “was not that bad today.”

The city enforcement requiring citizens to buy cleaner fuels or to upgrade their boilers was continuing without any let up, he said.

And it would not stop even if recollections of the previous winter were beginning to fade.

He added: “We forget how terrible it was at this time last year,”